Theatre Kantanka’s Obscene Madame D: a world within

Keith Gallasch

Once again, Theatre Kantanka, led by Brazilian-Australian director-designer Carlos Gomes (he’s written about scenography and about Brazilian theatre for RealTime), has created an idiosyncratic work that entices its audience to brave an unfamiliar world, this one conjured from the writing of Hilda Hilst (1930-2004), a Brazilian whose work is only beginning to appear in English translation.

A poet, novelist and dramatist, Hilst was above all an experimenter who defied the formalism of the patriarchal literary order, writing from a distinctive female perspective: sensory, corporeal and aching to know “the sense of things.” All of this is evident in Hilst’s short novel Obscene Madame D and Kantanka’s account of it. The subject’s stream of consciousness engagement with the past is fused with intimations of mortality and an intense focus on the body and the world of the senses. Madame D (Katia Molino) obsessively relives her late husband Ehud’s repudiation of her urgent philosophical querying and his reduction of her to mere sexual being.

Aggressively reclusive, the ageing Madame D bares her bottom at the window to passersby, dons monstrous masks, frightening the locals, cruelly refuses the sympathies of a neighbour and immerses herself compulsively in recalled dialogues with her husband. The interior world of Madame D conjured in the book’s poetic prose is rendered vividly theatrical by Gomes and his team. Save for a few pieces of furniture, Madame D’s home is a spectral space; large painted drops hung at each end are screens onto which are projected images cast by her psyche, drawn and animated (Gomes and Sam James), sometimes abstract (geometric steps), sometimes concrete (a sketched stairway).

Eerily mutable, Madame’s home is ours, her eyes ours, our earphones her ears, open to the soundscapes of memory and curiosity: “What is a wing?” triggers the flap of wings, mention of the heart brings its beat. Ambiences are woven through with music (Gail Priest). As Madame recalls tender erotic times with Ehud, a soft organ melody underpinned with a slow pulsing is counterpointed with a clock ticking like dripping water. Elsewhere the sounds of sucking mud, insectile skitterings and a lava burst of noise conjure fear and primal states. Image and sound in Obscene Madame D come together to create a quasi-cinematic experience at the centre of which is an actual body (Katia Molino). Her hair wild and red, face obscured, private, she is a restless soul, fascinated with but taxed, as she ages, by a wealth of sensory recall and ever horrified by the banality of the everyday.

Obscene Madame D, Theatre Kantanka, photo Heidrun Löhr

When Ehud (voiced by Arky Michael), sounding as ever gentle and reasonable, blocks Madame D’s existential probing and insists she make him coffee, her limbs turn rigid, arms full-stretched, the task long and tortuous, the accompanying sound like a compulsive scratching in a vast, humming emptiness. When Ehud, an animated silhouette at the top of the stairs, is caught in a loop as he’s about to enter his room, Madame’s imitation of his movement is like a little dance of perhaps empathy or short-lived longing. But when the voice of Ehud attempts seduction, Madame seated, masked like a bizarre fish, responds, her body arching, desire rippling through her until she rejects it. She “is not at service” to Ehud, dead or alive. Countering Ehud’s objectification of her, Madame reduces him to mere trousers in mocking play with his pants.

Madame D is also wracked with fear and explosive anger. Windows crack, the hands of a clock run backwards and then float freely; a herd of wild pigs thunders across the walls. She declares herself a pig sow and invokes a porcine god, an animist creator that inhabits everything. In her resistance and questing, Madame has created her own metaphysics, unconstrainedly natural, malleable (the creatures she becomes in her expressive mask-making), free of the culture represented by Ehud. She might not find the answers she seeks, nor happily face the abyss, but she makes a start at it, obscenely upending convention with a once constrained body and a once repressed imagination.

Blending tense stillness and violent release, Katia Molino realises Madame D as a volatile presence, extrovert when masked, regressive when hidden beneath a table or a lampshade, there and not there, resonating with the magical, sometimes nightmarish instability of the production’s finely crafted aural and visual imagery. To inhabit Madame D’s world with her is a mysterious and rewarding experience, an immersive sharing of the sensibility of a woman making a cosmological home of her own.

A long-remembered reviewing highlight for me is a Sidetrack Performance Group production, The Bookkeeper of Rua dos Dourados (RealTime 52, 2002), adapted from the writings of Fernando Pessoa by Don Mamouney and Carlos Gomes and directed and designed by Gomes. It brought me into contact with the great Portuguese writer, just as Obscene Madame D has introduced me to Hilda Hilst, the only Brazilian female writer I’ve encountered other than Clarice Lispector. I’m grateful for the cosmopolitan spirit of this production in an Australian theatre culture gradually becoming more diversely Australian, more female, more Aboriginal and connecting with Asia, but beyond the UK and occasionally the US, too rarely engaging with the rest of the world..

Theatre Kantanka, Obscene Madame D, adapted from the novel by Hilda Hilst, director, designer Carlos Gomes, performer Katia Molino, composer, sound artist Gail Priest, video artist Sam James, lighting designer Fausto Brusamolino, producer Harley Stumm, Intimate Spectacle; 107 Projects, Redfern, Sydney, 23-27 May

Top image credit: Katia Molino, Obscene Madame D, Theatre Kantanka, photo Heidrun Löhr


Theatre Kantanka in the RealTime Archive


RealTime TV: Theatre Kantanka, Club Singularity

A video interview with Carlos Gomes and Katia Molino about the 2014 production Club Singularity with excerpts from this cosmologically preoccupied performance.


Identity loss, metaphysics and bad democracy

Keith Gallasch is engaged by Kantanka’s Club Singularity, a whimsical take on science and metaphysics with some dark overtones.

RealTime issue #121 June-July 2014 pp40-41


Contagious matter, infectious stuff 

Caroline Wake delights in Bargain Garden, Theatre Kantanka’s evocation of the seduction, repulsion and regret that come with our culture of excess. A collaboration with the contemporary music Ensemble Offspring.

RealTime issue #107 Feb-March 2012 p36


The concert: surreptitiously re-thought

Carlos Gomes impressively directed Ensemble Offspring’s The Secret Noise in Sydney and Melbourne in 2014, reviewed here by Felicity Clark.

RealTime issue #124 Dec-Jan 2014 p52


Ageing and [in]difference

Bryoni Trezise reviews Theatre Kantanka’s Missing the Bus to David Jones a subtle, multimedia investigation into the institutionalisation of old age.

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 p43


Bollywood: film as theatre

Bryoni Trezise joins the extras in Fearless N which, with a script by Noelle Janaczewska, references a 1950s Australian Bollywood actress.

RealTime issue #84 April-May 2008 p40


A capital criminal

Keith Gallasch on the PACT-Theatre Kantanka Crime Site, a show about the murder of babies with a cast that included young performers Mish Grigor and Zoe Coombs Marr.

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 p40


Bodies at work

Keith Gallasch is taken with Theatre Kantanka’s Innana’s Descent, an immersive psycho-cultural evocation of 5,000 year-old Sumerian culture played out deep below Sydney’s CBD in 2002.

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 p36

8 June 2018